SAN LUCA — The small town of San Luca sits high on the slopes of the Aspromonte mountains, which dominate the southwestern tip of Italy. Home to some 4,000 people, this village in the region of Calabria is also the unofficial headquarters of one of the world's most powerful crime syndicates: the 'Ndrangheta.

Its tentacles extend from the cocaine-exporting cartels of Latin America to fraudulent businesses in Eastern Europe. After the decline of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra in the 1990s and a rise in turf wars within the Naples-based Camorra, the 'Ndrangheta has emerged as the most powerful mafia group in Italy. The men of the Calabrian Hunters Helicopter Squadron, an elite unit of Italy's Carabinieri military police, are on a mission to bring that reign to an end.

'Ndrangheta operates in family-based units rooted in small towns and has been difficult, as a result, to infiltrate. Recently, though, the Hunters arrested Girolamo Facchineri, the heir in line to rule a powerful 'Ndrangheta clan in the area. Agents arrested him in an abandoned house near Cittanova, deep in the Aspromonte forest.

"We don't do it for glory or for money."

The Hunters were conducting a sweep in the area when they found clothes, food, binoculars and a gun inside the house. Then, they discovered the bunker where Facchineri was hiding. The special unit's commander enthusiastically displayed a photo of his men smiling next to the handcuffed Facchineri. "Taking a photo is a rite of passage," he says. "It's part of the hunt."

Codes and rituals

The Italian state's war on the 'Ndrangheta is headquartered in army barracks in the town of Vibo Valentia, about an hour-and-a-half drive north of San Luca. The Calabrian Hunters unit was founded in 1991 to end a wave of kidnappings in Calabria, but its mandate has since been expanded. Today its primary objective is to catch 'Ndrangheta bosses on the run.

Agents also infiltrate local clans, fight drug trafficking, destroy cannabis plantations and dismantle bunkers and hiding places in their efforts to weaken their enemy. In its 27 years of operation, the unit has unearthed more than 400 secret bunkers and arrested over 8,000 people, including 285 leaders who had absconded from prison.

"We don't do it for glory or for money. We do it because we believe in the fight against the mafia," says Commander Milo Aveni. "Many of our men have been waging battle against injustice since they were kids."

A Carbanieri police raid against the 'Ndrangheta in January — Photo: DPA/ZUMA

"Hunting" mafia bosses, as the agents call it, is a delicate activity that requires a deep knowledge of the 'Ndrangheta's codes and rituals. "When we go to arrest a boss on the run, their wife offers us coffee, and we drink it while he prepares his bag," says Andrea, an agent who grew up in Vibo Valentia. "We have to stoop to their level and look them in the eyes."

Having coffee and taking photos with criminals may seem too close for comfort, but the agents see it as a necessary dialogue. Many of them have been living alongside 'Ndrangheta members since they were born.

"Calabria is a body that has been fighting a cancer for its entire life," says Andrea. "I went to school with the children of mafiosi, and I often find myself interrogating my former classmates."

Bunker busters

As the agents approach the town of San Luca, some children on motorbikes drive off towards the town center to alert locals of their arrival. When the agents arrive, the heart of the country's most powerful crime syndicate resembles a ghost town. Two kids make an offensive gesture to the policemen as they walk past shuttered houses in silence.

"They know we're here so they shut themselves in," says Aveni. "Out of 4,000 residents, a quarter of them are under arrest."

The nearby town of Platì, a patchwork of shanty towns and luxury villas, is another well-known 'Ndrangheta hub. Just like in San Luca, teenagers keep an eye out for any police presence arriving in town. If they see agents with wet boots, they can tell the police are returning from a raid in the forest.

"Hunting the 'Ndrangheta is like playing a game of chess," says Michele, a 44-year-old agent who has uncovered dozens of bunkers in his career as a Calabrian Hunter. "Whenever we find one they always build something new. In one bunker, they even built an underground skateboard for transport."

"Out of 4,000 residents, a quarter of them are under arrest."

For Michele and his fellow agents, photographs with the criminals they capture are like taking a scalp to commemorate their work. Many arrests are carried out around Pietra Cappa, a rocky outcrop that rises over the Aspromonte. The monolith, Europe's largest, is the source of many local legends and strikes fear in the hearts of 'Ndrangheta bosses who hide there.

"Imagine how scared these people must have felt, holed up alone at night in the wilderness," says Michele. "We also feel fear, of course. We have emotions and families too, but we look fear in the eye and we face it down to accomplish our objective."

See more from Culture / Society here